Reality of Hong Kong's invisible poor brought to life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2011, 12:00am


Chan Siu-ming has one of Hong Kong's least glamorous jobs; he's a social worker dealing with poor people. What makes him rather special is that he has found a way of bringing home the reality of his job to those who find it hard to imagine what it's like to be poor in Hong Kong.

I guess at this point many readers' eyes are already beginning to glaze over. Who wants to read about the plight of the poor? And, frankly, we all know about this, don't we? We can always shove a few dollars in the charity box and then forget about it.

Here we are in Hong Kong, a place that has an official body churning out statistics about how many Rolls-Royces cruise around the city, how many squillions are paid for prime accommodation, and the like. And then there's the bald fact that more than one in 10 people live in poverty. It's a conservative statistic, even acknowledged by the government, which speaks of people suffering from malnutrition, dire housing conditions and layer upon layer of deprivation.

Chan, hardly a member of the elite himself, set out to experience what it's like to live right down there at the lower depths of the poverty ladder. He squeezed himself into an 18 sq ft living space in a government licensed bed-space flat measuring 700 sq ft, home to a maximum of 38 people. The noise, the vermin, the drug problems and the overbearing fug of depression hanging low over this establishment became reality for Chan. The regular inhabitants of these places are the voiceless ones who lurk in the shadows. It's true we all kind of know about them, but they are akin to that embarrassing relative whom everyone avoids, while everyone is mildly conscious of his presence.

So it takes someone like Chan, an outsider with commitment, to paint a stark picture of what happens in these places, so it may be removed from the realms of ignorance and put on full display.

Chan, as this newspaper has pointed out, followed in a noble tradition. Modestly he followed in the footsteps of the British author George Orwell, who wrote about being down and out in London and Paris to compelling effect.

And, by coincidence, this year also marks the 45th anniversary of one of Britain's most remarkable television programmes, Cathy Come Home, a film about a family sunk into homelessness during the so-called 'Swinging Sixties' when Britain was supposed to have finally shaken off the legacy of post-war depression.

Cathy had an immediate impact; it spurred the growth of a new charity group Shelter, now one of Britain's biggest charities, it forced government ministers to address some of the more appalling consequences of homelessness involving taking children away from their parents and, to a lesser extent, it stimulated the public housing building programme.

There was nothing in this film that was unknown before its broadcast, but knowing and seeing are two different things.

The bald statistics about poverty are there for anyone to see but who in Hong Kong looks at these figures and sees the family where parents sacrifice their own diet to give nutrition to their children, where old people sit in furnace-type rooms because the luxury of air conditioning is simply unimaginable, and where young parents in a state of despair give up their babies because they simply don't have the means to bring them up?

Because we know but do not see, we have a government that boasts about how it dished out HK$6,000 per head to some of the richest people on earth in its recent HK$37.9billion giveaway while raising the social and welfare budget by just over HK$5 billion.

Thanks to Chan, we have some insight into what all this means out there on the ground. He remains a 'lowly' social worker, an occupation with little cachet and he is most unlikely to be smothered in the gongs that the rich bureaucrats award to their even richer friends who are said to give so much to charity. Yet, at great personal cost, he has performed a service to Hong Kong that is infinitely more worthwhile. Chan has put a human face on the disgrace of poverty in our affluent society.

The slight hope lingers that his efforts will not be in vain.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur